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Covid-19 Update

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the Government’s measures to safeguard our United Kingdom against the new variants of covid until we have administered enough vaccinations to free ourselves from the virus.

I am acutely conscious that at this moment parents are balancing the demands of working from home with supporting the education of their children, businesspeople are enduring the sight of their shops or restaurants or other enterprises standing empty and idle, and, sadly, too many are coping with the anxiety of illness or the tragedy of bereavement.

I am deeply sorry to say that the number of people that have been taken from us has surpassed 100,000, as the House was discussing only an hour or so ago. I know that the House will join me in offering condolences to all those who have lost loved ones. The most important thing we can do to honour their memory is to persevere against this virus with ever greater resolve.

That is why we have launched the biggest vaccination programme in British history. Three weeks ago, I reported that the UK had immunised 1.3 million people; now that figure has multiplied more than fivefold to exceed 6.8 million people—more than any other country in Europe and over 13% of the entire adult population. In England we have now delivered first doses to over four fifths of those aged 80 or over, over half of those aged between 75 and 79, and three quarters of elderly care home residents. Though it remains an exacting target, we are on track to achieve our goal of offering a first dose to everyone in the top four priority groups by the middle of February.

I can also reassure the House that all current evidence shows that both the vaccines we are administering remain effective against the new variant that was first identified in London and the south-east, by means of our world-leading capability in genomic sequencing. The UK has now sequenced over half of all covid-19 viral genomes that have been submitted to the global database—10 times more than any other country. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary announced our new variant assessment platform, through which we will work with the World Health Organisation to offer our expertise to help other countries, because a new variant anywhere poses a potential threat everywhere.

To guard against this danger, we must also take additional steps to strengthen our borders to stop those strains from entering the UK. We have already temporarily closed all travel corridors, and we are already requiring anyone coming to this country to have proof of a negative covid test taken in the 72 hours before leaving. They must also complete a passenger locator form which must be checked before they board, and then quarantine on arrival for 10 days. I want to make it clear that under the stay-at-home regulations, it is illegal to leave home to travel abroad for leisure purposes. We will enforce this at ports and airports by asking people why they are leaving and instructing them to return home if they do not have a valid reason to travel.

We have also banned all travel from 22 countries where there is a risk of known variants, including South Africa, Portugal and South American nations. In order to reduce the risk posed by UK nationals and residents returning home from these countries, I can announce that we will require all such arrivals who cannot be refused entry to isolate in Government-provided accommodation such as hotels for 10 days, without exception. They will be met at the airport and transported directly into quarantine. The Department of Health and Social Care is working to establish these facilities as quickly as possible. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will set out the details of our plans in her statement shortly. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has this morning spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and, as we have throughout this pandemic, we will be working closely with the devolved Administrations to implement these new measures so that, where possible, we continue with a UK-wide approach.

It was the emergence of a new variant that is up to 70% more transmissible that forced England back into lockdown, and I know that everyone yearns to know how much longer they must endure these restrictions, with all their consequences for jobs and livelihoods and, most tragically of all, for the life chances of our children. We will not persist for a day longer than is necessary, but nor can we relax too soon, because if we do, we run the risk of our NHS coming under still greater pressure, compelling us to reimpose every restriction and sustain those restrictions for longer.

So far, our efforts do appear to have reduced the R rate, but we do not yet have enough data to know exactly how soon it will be safe to reopen our society and economy. At this point, we do not have enough data to judge the full effect of vaccines in blocking transmission, nor the extent and speed with which the vaccines will reduce hospitalisations and deaths, nor how quickly the combination of vaccinations and the lockdown can be expected to ease the pressure on the NHS.

What we do know is that we remain in a perilous situation, with more than 37,000 patients now in hospital with covid, almost double the peak of the first wave, but the overall picture should be clearer by mid-February. By then, we will know much more about the effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalisations and deaths, using data from the UK but also other nations such as Israel. We will know how successful the current restrictions have been in driving down infections. We will also know how many people are still in hospital with covid, which we simply cannot predict with certainty today. We will then be in a better position to chart a course out of lockdown without risking a further surge that would overwhelm the NHS.

When I announced the lockdown, I said that we would review its measures in mid-February, once the most vulnerable had been offered the first dose of the vaccine, so I can tell the House that when Parliament returns from recess in the week commencing 22 February, subject to the full agreement of the House, we intend to set out the results of that review and publish our plan for taking the country out of lockdown. That plan will, of course, depend on the continued success of our vaccination programme, on the capacity of the NHS and on deaths falling at the pace we would expect as more people are inoculated.

Our aim will be to set out a gradual and phased approach towards easing the restrictions in a sustainable way, guided by the principles we have observed throughout the pandemic and beginning with the most important principle of all: that reopening schools must be our national priority. The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms. I know how parents and teachers need as much certainty as possible, including two weeks’ notice of the return of face-to-face teaching. I must inform the House that, for the reasons I have outlined, it will not be possible to reopen schools immediately after the February half-term. I know how frustrating that will be for pupils and teachers, who want nothing more than to get back to the classroom, and for parents and carers who have spent so many months juggling their day jobs not only with home schooling but with meeting the myriad other demands of their children from breakfast until bedtime.

I know, too, the worries we all share about the mental health of our young people during this prolonged period of being stuck at home, so our plan for leaving the lockdown will set out our approach towards re-opening schools. If we achieve our target of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups with their first dose by 15 February—and every passing day sees more progress towards that goal—those groups will have developed immunity from the virus by about three weeks later, that is by 8 March. We hope it will therefore be safe to begin the reopening of schools from Monday 8 March, with other economic and social restrictions being removed then or thereafter, as and when the data permits.

As we are extending the period of remote learning beyond the middle of February, I can confirm that the Government will prolong arrangements for providing free school meals for those eligible children not in school, including food parcels and the national voucher scheme, until they have returned to the classroom. We can also commit now that, as we did this financial year, we will provide a programme of catch-up over the next financial year. This will involve a further £300 million of new money to schools for tutoring, and we will work in collaboration with the education sector to develop, as appropriate, specific initiatives for summer schools and a covid premium to support catch-up. But we recognise that these extended school closures have had a huge impact on children’s learning, which will take more than a year to make up, so we will work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure pupils have the chance to make up their learning over the course of this Parliament.

I know that the measures I am setting out today will be deeply frustrating to many hon. Friends and colleagues, and disappointing for all of us. But the way forward has been clear ever since the vaccines arrived, and as we inoculate more people hour by hour, this is the time to hold our nerve in the end game of the battle against the virus. Our goal now must be to buy the extra weeks we need to immunise the most vulnerable and get this virus under control, so that together we can defeat this most wretched disease and reclaim our lives, once and for all. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. To lose 100,000 people to this virus is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is a stark number: an empty chair at the kitchen table; a person obviously taken before their time. Today, we should remember that, and we should mark the moment by learning the lessons of the last year to make sure that the same mistakes are not made again.

Of course, any Government would have struggled with this pandemic—I get that and the British people get that—but the reality is that Britain is the first country in Europe to suffer 100,000 deaths, and we have one of the highest death rates in the world. The Prime Minister often says that he has been balancing the health restrictions against economic risks, but that simply does not wash, because alongside that high death toll we also have the deepest recession of any major economy and the lowest growth of any major economy, and we are on course to have one of the slowest recoveries of any major economy.

So for all the contrition and sympathy that the Prime Minister expresses, and I recognise how heartfelt that is, the truth is that this was not inevitable—it was not just bad luck. It is the result of a huge number of mistakes by the Prime Minister during the course of this pandemic. We were too slow into lockdown last March, too slow to get protective equipment to the front line and, of course, too slow to protect our care homes—20% of deaths in this pandemic have come from care home residents. I really do not think that the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary understand just how offensive it was to pretend that there was a protective ring around our care homes.

The Government had the chance over the summer to learn from those mistakes in the first wave and prepare for a second wave and a challenging winter. I put that challenge to the Prime Minister in June, but that chance was wasted. The Government then went on to fail to deliver an effective test, trace and isolate system, despite all the warnings. They failed to deliver clear and reliable public messaging, crucial in a pandemic—one minute telling people to go to work, then to do the complete opposite.

The Prime Minister has failed on a number of occasions to follow the scientific advice that the virus was getting out of control. First, in September, when that advice was given, they failed to implement a circuit break or lockdown over half-term as we suggested. Then in December, we had the fiasco over Christmas mixing. Once again, we had the 13-day delay from 22 December, when that further medical advice was given, to when the third national lockdown was finally introduced. As a result, we have seen a third wave more deadly than the first and second waves. Fifty thousand people have died since 11 November. That is 50,000 deaths in 77 days. That is a scarcely believable toll on the British people.

In isolation, any of these mistakes are perhaps understandable. Taken together, it is a damning indictment of how the Government have handled this pandemic. The Prime Minister says, “Well, now is not the time to answer the question why.” That is the answer he gave back in the summer after the first wave. He said the same after the second wave, and he says it again now, each time repeating the mistakes over and over again. That is why now is the time to ask and answer the question why.

The way out of this nightmare has now been provided by our amazing scientists, our NHS, our armed forces and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. The vaccine programme is making incredible progress. The British people have come together to deliver what is the largest peacetime effort in our history. Despite the Prime Minister’s constant complaining, all of us—all of us—are doing whatever we can to help the vaccine roll out as swiftly and as safely as possible.

On schools, first I have to say that even for this Prime Minister it is quite something to open schools one day and close them the next, to call them vectors of transmission and then to challenge me to say that the schools he has closed are safe, only now to give a statement where he says that schools cannot open until 8 March at the earliest because it is not safe to do so. That is his analysis. It is the sort of nonsense that has led us to the highest death toll in Europe and the worst recession.

We of course welcome any steps forward in reopening schools, and we will look at the detail of how the Education Secretary plans to deliver that and the plans to deliver online learning. I also hope that the Prime Minister will take seriously our proposal—echoed, incidentally, by the Children’s Commissioner and the Conservative Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—that once the first four categories of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated by mid-February, he should bring forward the vaccination of key workers and use that window of the February half-term to vaccinate all school staff, including every teacher and teaching assistant. There is a clear week there when that could be done, and it should be done.

On borders, we will look at the detail—

Order. I hope that the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments are coming to an end; he is well past the five minutes allocated.

On borders, we will look at the Prime Minister’s statement in detail, and obviously hear what the Home Secretary has to say, but in due course there will be a public inquiry. The Prime Minister will have to answer the question. I hope that he can finally answer this very simple and direct question, because yesterday he was maintaining that the Government had done

“everything we could to save lives.”

Is he really saying to those grieving families that their loss was just inevitable and that none of the 100,000 deaths could have been avoided?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about mistakes, and I have said that there will be a time to reflect, to analyse, to learn lessons and to prepare. However, I say to him that I think the biggest mistake he has made is in seeking continually to attack what the Government have been trying to do at every opportunity, supporting one week and then attacking the very same policy the next week. He complains about confusion of messages. How much has he actually done, as Leader of the Opposition, to reassure the public, for example, about NHS Test and Trace, which has done a very good job, I notice, of confining him for the third time? What has he done to reassure people about messaging, rather than attacking, causing confusion and trying to sow doubt about what the Government are doing? There was a very different path open to him at the beginning of this pandemic and it is a great pity he has not taken it.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well that the problem is not that schools are unsafe. They are not unsafe. Schools are safe—he should say it, and his union paymasters should hear him say it loud and clear. The problem is that schools bring communities together, obviously, and large numbers of kids are a considerable vector of transmission. It is not that there is any particular extra risk to those involved in education.

I heard with interest what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say about his proposal for changing the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation priority list, and I really think he should reflect on what he is saying. The JCVI priority list, one to nine, is designed by experts and clinicians to prioritise those groups who are most likely to die or suffer from coronavirus. By trying to change that, and saying that he now wants to bring in other groups of public sector workers, to be decided by politicians, rather than the JCVI, he has to explain which vaccines he would take from which vulnerable groups, to make sense of his policy. That is what he is doing and that is what the Labour proposal would involve.

Indeed, by making it more difficult for us to vaccinate all those vulnerable groups in the fastest possible way, that Labour policy would delay our route out of lockdown and delay our ability to get kids back into school in the way they want. I urge the right hon. and learned Gentleman to think again, or at least to explain which members of those vulnerable groups would be deprived of vaccines in order to follow the Labour policy.

All I can say, having listened carefully to what the right hon. and learned Gentleman had to say, is that everybody will have to answer questions at the end of this and—let me put it this way—all politicians will be asked what they did, and what we did collaboratively, working together for the people of our country, to beat this virus. I am not sure that, on reflection, his choice was the right one for either his party or the country.

On Monday, Baroness Harding said that 40% of the people asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace were not fully doing so. That works out at a worrying 30,000 people every day who are potentially still spreading the virus, many of them still going to work. Because that is such a big threat to our containment strategy for the virus, could the Prime Minister say what he thinks we need to do to deal with that issue? In particular, is it now time to consider making a blanket offer to those asked to self-isolate, that we will make good any salary they lose? In the end, that may be cheaper than having to extend furlough if the case rate remains high.

I very much respect my right hon. Friend’s suggestion and I understand the logic of what he is saying, but I believe that the people of this country should be self-isolating, in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition is rightly doing, on the basis that it is the right thing for themselves, for their families and for the country. They do get support, where needed, of £500, and there are very considerable fines for failing to do it. I think that is the right way forward and I hope he will join me in commending prompt action by everybody who is asked to self-isolate. It is the right thing to do for you, for your family and for the country.

Let me thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement.

As we know, yesterday the UK reached yet another terrible milestone—100,000 covid-related deaths. Today, it is only right that we reflect on all those who have lost their lives during this pandemic. Our thoughts and prayers are most especially with their families and those who are left with the heaviest burden of grief. In time, there will be a reckoning on the UK Government’s response to this virus and it is clear that that verdict may well be damning. In the here and now, though, it remains our job to focus on how we can support and save as many people as possible in the weeks and months ahead. That means a renewed commitment to maintaining public health, but it also must mean a renewed package of financial support for all those—all those, Prime Minister—who have been left behind by this Tory Government.

Right now, covid is the immediate threat to life, but poverty remains a killer, too. In 2019, the Institute for Public Policy Research revealed that Tory austerity cuts over the previous decade had resulted in as many as 130,000 preventable deaths. The Prime Minister promised not to repeat Tory austerity. If people are to believe him, he should start by making three important announcements today: extend the furlough scheme for the full duration of the pandemic; maintain the uplift to universal credit and apply it to legacy benefits; and put in place a package of support for the 3 million excluded.

Prime Minister, eleventh-hour announcements have to stop. These decisions cannot wait until the Budget in March. People need certainty now. I asked the Prime Minister these same questions at Prime Minister’s questions, but I failed to get a straight answer, so please try again, Prime Minister. Will his Government extend furlough, maintain the universal credit uplift and offer support for the 3 million excluded? Finally, on international travel, both the Scottish and Welsh Governments want to go further on quarantining measures than what his UK Government are proposing. Will the Prime Minister stop his half measures and join the Governments in Scotland and Wales in stricter enforcements on international travel? That, Prime Minister, would be leadership.

I look forward to what the devolved Administrations do later, but I can tell the House that we are putting in the toughest measures virtually anywhere in the world, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be setting out the detail in due course.

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that this country, through the might of the UK Treasury, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said many times, has been able to look after people across the UK. It is thanks to the UK Government that we have the furlough scheme, the bounce back loans and the many other forms of support. It is thanks to the UK that we have, for instance, the Army able to move people in distress with covid in remote parts of Scotland to the hospitals where they need to get to, and indeed the British Army helping across Scotland, I am proud to say, to distribute the vaccines that are so essential for our fight back from this virus. So I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will abandon his narrow nationalist position and look at the achievements of the UK overall, and I think it is a fine, fine thing. It would be a wonderful thing, by the way, if the Scottish nationalist party for a moment stopped talking about its desire for a referendum while we are trying to deal with a pandemic.

The Prime Minister is very properly concerned to protect our national health service, and particularly to prevent hospitals and intensive care units from being overwhelmed this winter. My question is about the scope to enhance primary care to reduce the need for covid patients to go to hospital in the first place. New Canadian studies of 4,500 people published this week show that the use of colchicine has cut hospital admissions by 25% and death rates by almost half. Similarly, some ivermectin studies have shown 75% reductions in death rates. What scope is there to act quickly this winter—this winter, not next winter—to enhance our primary care level to protect populations and hospitals?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. The therapeutics taskforce is currently reviewing both the drugs that he mentions, and I will make sure that he is kept up to speed with its findings.

As of 6.30 pm yesterday, the UK has the worst recorded death rate by head of population in the world. This is a grave moment for our country. I am sure all our hearts go out to the families who have lost loved ones. Last week, the Prime Minister told me he was still not prepared to launch the inquiry into the covid crisis that he promised six months ago. Instead, will he at least tell the country today that he will launch that inquiry sometime this year, so that we can find out why our country has seen the worst death rate from covid in the world, learn the lessons, and give bereaved families the answers and the justice that he owes them?

Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has the answer contained in his question. This country is going through a grievous bout of a deadly pandemic. He rightly draws attention to the death toll of 100,000 and, as he knows, there are currently 37,000 people in hospital. The entire British state is working flat out to bring the virus under control, and to get us through this pandemic and out the other side. As I have told him before, now is not the right time to consecrate the energies and efforts of officialdom, which would be huge, to an inquiry, though as I have said before—I said it last night and I will reassure him again today—of course there will be a time to learn lessons, to reflect, to understand and to prepare.

I welcome and thank my right hon. Friend for his upbeat statement, which offers much-needed hope to a beleaguered nation, rather contrary to Captain Hindsight’s contribution. With a successful inoculation programme in full swing, my right hon. Friend’s plan to break free from lockdowns and restrictions is critical. Variants or no variants, does he agree that the lives and livelihoods of millions of our citizens now depend on a more proportionate response to this pandemic, which will require political courage to initiate?

I very much respect the point of view of my hon. Friend, who has long been a keen and justified campaigner for liberty. I share his instincts very strongly, but I must tell him that we will continue to be cautious in our approach because we do not wish to see more lives lost than we can possibly avoid. That is why we will continue with the roll-out of the vaccine programme —the fastest in Europe currently—and on 15 February, as I have just said to the House, we will look at where we are. We will be setting out a road map, which I hope will be useful to him and to all colleagues throughout the House, on 22 February.

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. Would he confirm what discussions have taken place with his counterparts in education to give ample time for teachers to plan their online teaching, with special reference to children who cannot or will not be able to access their online classes? I agree with him that it is better that the children are back in their classrooms, but can he ensure that all the teaching staff, especially the special needs teachers, will be a priority for the vaccine roll-out? Can he also confirm that there will be no shortage of vaccine, as was indicated in the press today?

We are rolling out 1.3 million laptops, and we are making sure that kids—pupils—have access to online learning wherever possible. The most important thing, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, is to get kids back into school as soon as we sensibly can. That is what the Government are determined to do.

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman about the vaccination programme. He mentioned anxieties about supply. As I stand before you today, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am confident that we will deliver on the 15 February pledge, and that we will continue to be able to drive up—[Interruption.] I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is responsible for the vaccine roll-out, is confirming that we will be able to continue that accelerating curve of supply as well.

I join Members across the House in sending my deepest condolences to the families and friends of each and every individual who had tragically passed away as a result of covid. However, during this extremely difficult time I have nothing but admiration for the army of volunteers working tirelessly in my constituency and across the country. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking organisations such as The Fed, the Jewish Volunteering Network, Headsup and Porch Boxes, along with all those who have done so much to protect the vulnerable and needy in Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield?

I will indeed join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those volunteers in his constituency. They join a huge constellation of shining points of light across our country. It has been one of the most extraordinary things; one of the few consolations of this crisis is the upsurge in volunteering.

May I associate my remarks with others that have been made, and express my sincerest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one, particularly the constituents to whom I spoke last night?

Professor Sir Michael Marmot’s recent report pointed to four drivers that have contributed to the high and unequal death toll in the UK. He identified the governance and political culture that have damaged social cohesion and inclusivity; the widening inequalities in power, money and resources; the regressive austerity policies over the past 10 years; and the declining life expectancy—and of the healthy life expectancy—of the poorest, particularly women, which is among the worst in all comparable economies. Professor Marmot has called for the Government to address those issues and to build back fairer, so will the Prime Minister and his Cabinet listen to him?

I have a very high regard for Michael Marmot, and worked closely with him for many years. I believe that his advice is invaluable, and we will indeed make sure that as we come through the pandemic we look at the way in which it has impacted on the poorest and most vulnerable. We will indeed build back fairer.

The vaccine roll-out now offers hope and relief to vulnerable people who have spent months living in fear and isolation. We hear that 6.8 million vaccines have been delivered, which is an amazing achievement, and I thank everyone involved in the roll-out. The mass vaccination hubs are an important part of the scheme, but many of my constituents with mobility issues are worried that they are going to miss out on their vaccine, as they cannot make the journey to one of those larger hubs. Can the Prime Minister give them reassurance that they will be offered a vaccine locally—even in their own home—and that anyone unable to travel will be fully supported?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I hope that she will give reassurance to her constituents that they need have no anxieties about that. They do not have to go to the vaccination centres. They can either go to their GP surgery or, indeed, they will be visited in their own home.

May I add my condolences to those already expressed to the victims, and their families and friends, of this awful illness? One of the challenges for children and adults working from home—the time now for children extended today by the Prime Minister—is, in addition to devices and connectivity, a lack of digital skills. This week I was made aware of an online scam asking people to put their financial information into a very plausible fake NHS website to get the vaccine. What is the Prime Minister doing to tackle this criminal activity, preying on often vulnerable people waiting for the vaccine? What is the Prime Minister doing to ensure that individuals, young and old, have the digital skills they need to protect themselves, learn from home and work from home?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of digital skills and connectivity. That is why we are, for instance, massively increasing superfast gigabit broadband across the country and making sure that people have the technology they need. She raises a particularly important point about online scams. These are a problem. I can tell her that we are working across Government, led by the Cabinet Office, to beat the fraudsters and root them out. If she would be kind enough to send me details of the case she mentions, we will feed it into our system immediately.

Do we have the sound working for Mr Clark? [Interruption.] I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. We appear to be hearing the sound engineers. Perhaps we will leave that for a moment and come back to the right hon. Gentleman. Meanwhile, we will go to York, hopefully, to Rachael Maskell.

The evidence shows that the Government’s approach to easing the lockdown before Christmas meant that crowds of people came to York despite my warnings, spreading infection in the retail, hospitality and transport sectors because they could travel to a lower tier and were off guard in my community. The result has been devastating. It was completely unsafe and completely avoidable. Will the Prime Minister commit not to return to a tiered system where people can freely move the infection from one place to another? What steps will he take to avoid this catastrophe from happening again? Can I meet one of his Ministers to discuss York’s tragic experience over Christmas?

As soon as we were informed of the extra transmissibility—50% to 70% faster—of the new variant, we took all the action we could. I would just remind the hon. Lady that the best thing we can do for the people of York now is to ensure we keep the virus under control with the tough measures we have and ensure we all come forward for the vaccine. I urge her to get her constituents to come forward and take that vaccine. They are going great guns in Yorkshire. My memory is that in Yorkshire I think they have taken more vaccine than virtually anywhere else in the country. I congratulate the people of Yorkshire on what they are doing. We are now coming into the last furlong of the JCVI one to four and it would be great to get 100% of the people of Yorkshire in the course of the next few days.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In all the gloom of the tragedy of covid, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the staff and volunteers who are working so hard to scale up the programme of vaccinations in Harlow and delivering the life-saving vaccines to thousands of residents in our new mass vaccination centre? I know he wants schools and colleges to open sooner rather than later. I really welcome what he has said today about catch-up, the extra funding, free school meals and, above all, the education plan for a covid recovery. Will he ensure the catch-up fund also helps children with mental health problems? Will he work with a coalition of the willing, such as the Children’s Commissioner and other educationalists, to get all our children back in the classroom?

Yes, indeed, I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating not just the NHS, the Army and the pharmacies but the volunteers who are making the vaccine roll-out possible. We are putting extra funding into tackling mental health problems, particularly for children and young people, and the funding that we have announced of over £3 billion extra every year will go to help 345,000 children as well.

Office for National Statistics data shows that key workers and those in manual and public-facing jobs are at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus. Bradford is a key worker city, and tragically, more than 1,000 Bradfordians have now died from the virus. When the most vulnerable groups have been vaccinated, will the Prime Minister ensure that priority is given to frontline workers who have played such a key role in keeping the country going during the pandemic, often with a high risk to their personal safety, including police officers, teachers, shop workers, bus and taxi drivers and many others who are unable to work from home? When will he publish his plan for the next stage of the vaccine roll-out?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on being so much more sensible than her party leader, who is saying that he wants to interrupt the vaccine roll-out for the vulnerable groups and decide politically who should get the vaccine. I think we should leave it to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to decide the most vulnerable groups. That is what we are going to do. That is the fastest way to deal with those who are most likely to die. I saw that she was shaking her head; she perhaps disagrees with the suggestion that she has just made, but I think that it is an excellent suggestion, and she should stick to it.

I thank the Prime Minister for his commitment to reopen schools as soon as possible and for the vaccine roll-out. I am asking this question on behalf of children everywhere. As the mother of a nine-year-old, I can see that young children are struggling. Their cognitive development is determined at this age. We are storing up a lifetime of problems—anxiety, mental health issues and obesity—by having all our primary-age children at home. May I urge the Prime Minister to have courage in these final months and bring children—particularly primary-age children—back to school as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend is completely right, and I know that she speaks for millions of mothers and millions of parents across the country who want our kids to be back in school and who are anxious about the gaps in their learning that may be arising as a result of this pandemic. We are going to do everything we can to plug those gaps. She has heard what I have said about catch-up funds and the investments we are making in one-to-one tutorials, and that will go on not just this year but next year and throughout this Parliament, until we have made up the ground for those kids, because they deserve it. We will, of course, work as fast as possible to get schools open, but we must do it in a way that is cautious and proportionate.

Many people on low incomes and in precarious work still cannot afford to self-isolate on the UK’s meagre level of statutory sick pay, and some are not even entitled to it. What impact does the Prime Minister feel that the UK’s having one of the lowest rates of statutory sick pay has had on the death rate? Will he increase it as a matter of urgency, to help people do the right thing and stay safe?

In addition to statutory sick pay and universal credit, there is the £500 that we make available to those in need of it, and that is the right way forward. I am afraid that the hon. Lady is not right in what she says about the level of statutory sick pay in this country; it compares favourably with countries around the world.

The Government ordered the covid vaccine early, they have delivered it efficiently, and 11% of the population are now vaccinated. Compare that with the European Union. Because of the EU’s bureaucracy, inefficiency and petty politics, it ordered the vaccine late, delivered it inefficiently and has only vaccinated 2% of its population. Prime Minister, it is not just a great credit to your leadership and your Government that we have delivered the vaccination so quickly. Is it not also one of the great advantages of having left the European Union?

What I will say is that we certainly were able to use speed and agility to deliver on the programme that we needed. It would have been a great pity if we had followed the advice of the Leader of the Opposition and the Labour party, who said, “Stay in the EU vaccines programme”, who wanted to get rid of big pharmaceutical companies in the crazed Corbynite agenda on which the Leader of the Opposition stood at the last election, and who attacked the vaccines taskforce that secured 367 million doses of vaccine.

So I do think that we have been able to do things differently and better, in some ways, but it is early days and it is very important to remember that these vaccines are an international venture. We depend on our friends and partners and we will continue to work with those friends and partners, in the EU and beyond.

Order. I did not want to interrupt the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) while he was in full virtual, rhetorical flow, but he knows that he must not address the Prime Minister as “you”—he must not say, “What are you doing Prime Minister?” He must address the Chair. He is setting a bad example as a senior Member of this House, as are many senior Members, to new Members who have yet to learn the proper mode of address. We must be careful during this time of virtual proceedings not to let standards fall.

I support the vaccination programme. My clinical commissioning groups have been among the best in England at rolling out the covid vaccine—a real success story for the communities that I represent, who have been placed under restrictions since 29 July. But today the NHS has said that it will cut by one third the future vaccine supplies to the north-west, so that the rest can catch up. That is worrying, if true.

Can I ask the Prime Minister about logistics? What impact does he think withholding vaccines to the north-west will have? Will second jabs be delayed still further or will the next cohort of first jabs need to be rescheduled, leaving those people unprotected for longer?

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we will make sure that his constituents get exactly what they need for the roll-out to groups 1 to 4. I am assured by the Minister for vaccines, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), that there is no such delay.

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman now supports the vaccination programme; perhaps he could repudiate the policy, on which he stood, to destroy the pharmaceutical companies that have made the vaccines possible. Perhaps he could dissociate himself from previous Labour attacks on the vaccine taskforce, which secured the doses on which he now relies.

I welcome the emphasis today on school return, which is absolutely vital; we know the devastating impact that being out of school has on children’s mental health. The Prime Minister is absolutely right: schools are safe to return. There is now firm evidence that primary schools in particular do not contribute to the spread of this vicious disease. Will the Prime Minister commit to sharing that evidence with teachers, parents and students, so that they can be reassured that, regardless of vaccines, schools are safe to return?

My hon. Friend is spot on. Schools are safe. The only issue with opening them is that, as I said to the House earlier, they add to the overall budget of transmission because lots of households are brought together—that, obviously, is what a school does. But schools are safe. They are wonderful places, and I support my hon. Friend in wanting to get them open as soon as possible.

I have self-employed constituents who are coming up to a year without support, businesses in supply chains that are unable to furlough staff and newly established businesses and others that have fallen foul of administrative deadlines, as obviously do other hon. Members. I welcome the support that has been provided, but will the Prime Minister agree to consider those who have fallen through the gaps? In answering, may I ask him not to repeat the list of what has been done but to say what he will do now to support those who have been excluded, including considering the cross-party proposal for a targeted income grant scheme?

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and one that has been made many times on both sides of the House. We will, of course, do everything we can to assist those who are hard to identify and whose incomes and entitlements, for HMRC purposes, are therefore not easy to calculate. The group is, in fact, far smaller than we sometimes hear in this House, and the cases can be very complex, but we remain committed to doing everything we can to help people throughout the pandemic.

I join my right hon. Friend in celebrating the success of our vaccination programme, which is working well in Southend. I also welcome his remarks about education. However, will he join me in reminding people that if they accept an invitation to be vaccinated, they should keep that appointment? We should all help elderly people to do that, otherwise vaccinators will have to make a very difficult decision at short notice on what to do with those spare vaccines.

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and we must get people to take up their appointments and take up the vaccines when they are offered. Some groups are proving tough to reach, and I look forward to all hon. Members on both sides of the House working together to encourage people of the advantages of a vaccine. It is a wonderful thing. Go and get it, if you get a message to do so.

Healthy life expectancy for men at birth in the Hirst ward of my Wansbeck constituency is 52 years, whereas in Ickenham in the Prime Minister’s constituency it is 71 years, and that trend looks only to be getting wider. Can the Prime Minister explain to the people of my constituency why his Government are so eager to avoid a vaccine postcode lottery by diverting our supply from the north-east southwards to more prosperous regions of the country, simply because the NHS in our area has done an absolutely fantastic job, while at the same time the Government have done nothing to tackle the postcode lottery of healthy life expectancy, which varies so widely across this country? Can I urge him to consider whether the same actions would have been taken if the shoe had been on the other foot?

Before I ask the Prime Minister to answer the question, I must beg for shorter questions from hon. Members. I know they are sitting at home and that the opportunity makes them want to speak for longer once they have the attention of the House, but we will never get on to the next statement or let the Prime Minister complete all the promises he has made today if we do not get this statement finished.

The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and I share an ambition. We want to unite and level up across the whole UK, and that is the mission of this Government. I am afraid he is totally wrong in what he says about the roll-out of the vaccines. We are making sure that everywhere gets what they need for JCVI groups 1 to 4 by 15 February. That is what we are doing and will continue to do. I am delighted by his conversion to the vaccine. I seem to have read somewhere that he seemed a bit sceptical. There he goes smirking away. It is not a smirking matter. It is absolutely crucial. He should tell his constituents to get a vaccination.

To lift lockdown, will my right hon. Friend focus exclusively on the progress of vaccinations of those who are most likely to be hospitalised if infected? Is it not the case that mission creep beyond hospitalisations would inevitably lead to the diminution of our sense of urgency to lift the restrictions?

My right hon. Friend is completely right and he gets to the heart of the problem in the pretend policy that has been announced by the Opposition party. If we were to interfere with the JCVI 1 to 9 list, which is intended to target those most vulnerable and those most at risk of dying or of hospitalisation, we would, of course, interpolate it with other people appointed by politicians, taking vaccines away from the more vulnerable groups and, as he has rightly said, delay our ability to move forward out of lockdown. He is spot on.

In Luton, like many places, we are challenged to reduce cases of covid as a large number of people work in jobs where it is not possible to work from home. What are the Government doing to support businesses to reduce workplace transmission? Will those plans include decent sick pay and the rolling out of home rapid test kits to small and medium-sized employers to support reducing this risk?

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point about the need to roll out rapid test kits. That is happening in communities, towns and cities across the country, and I commend her for supporting them. They may not be the total answer— of course not—to fighting this disease, but they are extremely useful in isolating asymptomatic cases and helping us to drive down the R rate in local communities.

May I ask my good and right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether priority lists for vaccinations will be reviewed after groups 1 to 4 are complete, particularly for groups from whom we are having emails, such as police officers, supermarket cashiers, teachers, home carers and people with learning disabilities, some of whom seem to be disproportionately afflicted by covid-19?

Of course my hon. Friend is right to raise that. I thank him, but I will just repeat what I said earlier to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, the Leader of the Opposition. It follows from everything that I have said that teachers are in that list of vulnerable groups 1 to 9; police officers are in those groups, as are supermarket workers, cashiers, and people with learning disabilities. They are our priority because it is by vaccinating them that we will be able to reduce—I am afraid—the tragic death toll that we would otherwise see.

Staff at Hull Royal Infirmary and Castle Hill Hospital have been magnificent during this pandemic. They are used to making people better, however, and the number of deaths is taking its toll on staff, who are physically exhausted. What is the Prime Minister planning to do to support exhausted staff in dealing with the ever-growing waiting list that they will face once the covid threat has subsided?

I thank the hon. Lady very much. I think it was Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, who put it best yesterday when he talked about the best thing that we can do for our NHS staff. She is absolutely right in what she says about the stress and the pressure that the NHS has been operating under in these past few weeks. The best thing that we can do is to keep this infection rate going down, to roll out the vaccination programme and, indeed, to make sure that all NHS staff are vaccinated. As she knows, they are in the JCVI 1 to 4 group and are our priority for 15 February.

The roll-out of the vaccine has been a truly heroic effort by absolutely everybody involved, not least to remain on track to get the top four priority groups their first dose by the middle of February. Every vaccine brings hope, but there is also an incredible amount of anxiety in the country, not least among business owners unable to trade, and families juggling home learning with holding down jobs. I urge my right hon. Friend, as he looks at rightly lifting the restrictions, to be really clear with all our constituents precisely what “when the data permits” means, so that there can be absolute clarity on what needs to happen to lift each tier of restrictions.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will of course set all this out in the course of the next few weeks. What I can tell the House are some obvious things that the House can see for itself. We need to be sure that the vaccine roll-out continues to go at the pace, and with the success, that it currently is. We need to ensure that we are targeting all those groups, reducing the overall level of vulnerability in the population.

We need to ensure, clearly, that the vaccine is working—or the vaccines are working, because there are at least two now—in the sense that they are driving down the mortality rate in those elderly and vulnerable groups. We need to start to see that. There are promising signs from Israel. In this country, we have not yet seen the data that would help us to be absolutely confident of that point.

Then, of course, there are the pressures on the NHS and other important considerations—to say nothing of the very important economic considerations that my hon. Friend raises. I assure him that we will set out much more in the course of the next weeks to give reassurance and certainty, as far as we can, to all our constituents.

When Australia had a second wave it held an inquiry that showed the failures of the private contractors in the system of quarantine that they were running. Australia learned from it, the Minister resigned, and it is better. Now, it is almost covid-free. The Prime Minister is so right in saying that of course every Government will make mistakes, but why will he not open an inquiry now so that we can learn from those mistakes, not keep repeating them, like delays in lockdown and in schools opening, and actually start to turn this thing around? Will he commit here and now to do a short, sharp public inquiry, as the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, on which I sit, suggested, so that we can all be the better for it?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and indeed for the work of his Committee. I know that those conclusions, along with many others, will be studied with care. I know that you want brief answers, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I direct him to the answers that I have already given on that point to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and to many others throughout the day. Of course we will learn the lessons, but at the height of the pandemic we would have to concentrate a huge amount of official and health sector time to an inquiry, when we need to get on with beating the virus.

The roll-out of the vaccine has been an undoubted success for the Government, but it brings us to a point where people want to understand the path ahead to give them something to aim towards. I welcome the clarity that the Prime Minister has given on schools, but in the coming days can he give a clear route map that sets out the potential for further easing of restrictions, such as when outdoor exercise facilities such as golf courses can resume, hospitality events can restart and our high streets can reopen, to reassure people that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and that they will shortly realise some of the benefits of the incredible sacrifices that they have had to make over recent months?

My hon. Friend is entirely right in what he asks for, and I will supply, I hope, exactly that. He will recall how last year we set out a series of dates by which we hoped to do certain things at the earliest—4 July for opening hospitality, and so on and so forth. I hope that in the course of the next few weeks we will be able to populate the diary ahead with some more milestones and assumptions about what we may be able to do, which I hope will give reassurance to him, to businesses in his constituency, and to us all.

The First Minister of Scotland has today reinforced her message, telling people not to travel

“when it’s not really, really, really, really essential”.

With new border restrictions, it is likely that there will be a reduction in the amount of travel into the UK, which will harm aviation and travel firms. Is sector-specific support coming in light of these new policies, Prime Minister?

We have supported the aviation sector throughout, through the time to pay scheme and others, and we have just introduced particular support for airfields with runways that are not in as much use as they could be. However, as the hon. Lady knows, the best way to get that sector and all others bouncing back is to continue on the path we are on, drive the virus down, vaccinate the population and open up sensibly.

I should declare an interest, as I am a chair of school governors and trustee of a joint schools board. In my youth, I was a Scout, and our motto was “Be prepared.” I congratulate school leaders and their staff on keeping schools open for vulnerable children and children of key workers where possible during the lockdown. Could the Prime Minister get his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education to share with school leaders as soon as possible his plan for the reopening of schools—because he tells us he has a plan—so that those school leaders will be prepared to put in place the measures necessary to reopen schools fully, in such a way that parents, children and school staff can have confidence that their schools will be ready and truly safe for everyone?

I very much join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating schools on what they have done to make themselves covid-secure, and the incredible amount of work they are doing to educate the 14% of kids who are in school now, to say nothing of all the home learning that is going on thanks to the efforts of teachers. I thank our schools for that.

I think you would agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have set out a little bit today about what we plan to do to get schools back—the extra support we are giving, and the timetable. However, of course, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will say more in due course.

The pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms, and many excellent shops of Aylesbury are desperate to reopen. Can my right hon. Friend reassure them that the measures he has announced today, combined with the vaccination roll-out, will speed up when that will happen, and that there is a route out of lockdown for us all?

I do not think I could agree more vehemently with my hon. Friend if I tried; I have nothing to add to his excellent question. Yes, of course that is the way ahead.

Is the Prime Minister proud that he spent half a billion pounds of public money on the eat out to help out scheme, which it is now estimated increased the spread of the virus by up to 17%?

I wonder whether the hon. Lady is proud of attacking the vaccines taskforce for spending £675,000 on whether vaccines would reach the most vulnerable people in our society.

Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking the British military personnel who have performed an incredible service in helping to roll out the vaccine at pace across every part of the UK, including the 92 personnel helping in Wales, and does he agree that their service shows how the UK is stronger when all four of our nations work together in the fight against this pandemic?

As I say, it has been one of the few consolations of this pandemic to see the way the country has come together to fight it, particularly to see the way that great national institutions—great UK institutions—such as the British Army have been absolutely indispensable in Wales, in Scotland and around the whole of the UK in fighting this pandemic. I know that it is appreciated across the whole of the UK.

In Greater Manchester, there are 20,000 pupils out of schools and with no decent access to online learning. Can the Prime Minister assure me that the £300 million that he has just announced in catch-up and tutoring money will be targeted at areas like Greater Manchester, where pupils have suffered disproportionately because of deprivation and because of high rates of infections that cause multiple periods of isolation, keeping them off school?

Yes, indeed. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the problem of differential learning. Unquestionably, some kids, and some families, in some parts of the country have suffered more of a break in their education than others; there is absolutely no doubt about it. That is why we are going to focus so much on the catch-up funds that I have identified. Of course, Greater Manchester will be targeted for all the measures that we have outlined this morning and more to come.

Across Watford we have incredible teachers. Will the Prime Minister, like me, thank them for the incredible work they have been doing in keeping schools open for key workers’ children? Will he also confirm his priority to make sure that schools can reopen as soon as it is safe to do so, in line with the advice from our scientific and medical advisers?

My hon. Friend and I have visited wonderful schools in his constituency together; we know the fantastic job they are doing. I know from talking to those teachers and those pupils how much they will be looking forward now to getting back into school. I can tell my hon. Friend that we will do everything we can to speed it up, but we must be cautious; we must make sure that we do it in tandem—pari passu—with the roll-out of the vaccine.

The Prime Minister has talked about the important support from the British Army in the vaccination roll-out. Salford’s programme has been supported by troops from the Royal Lancers. We do appreciate that, but we have been told that this military support is being withdrawn next Monday, giving less than a week to recruit and train 30 people—and that would mean that Salford would be able to deliver 500 fewer vaccines a day. Delays to vaccinations cost lives, so will he ensure that this vital military support is not withdrawn from Salford?

I am very doubtful that the people of Salford would be deprived in the way that the hon. Lady describes, but I will of course look into it urgently and my hon. Friend the vaccine Minister will be taking it up immediately.

Many parents will have faced home schooling last year with a sense of necessary resignation. My sense is that many of them are now quite desperately worried about their children. So it is fantastic news that the Prime Minister has said today that as the vaccines roll out and the most vulnerable are protected, that will move in lockstep and we will get the country back to school. However, do all schools have to wait for the 8 March date, even primary, given that we all agree, as he has said today at the Dispatch Box, that schools are safe?

I hear my hon. Friend loud and clear. I know his views will be shared by many in this House. I just want to go back to the key thing that we need to establish: it will not, alas, be until the middle of February that we have real, material evidence that the vaccines are working in terms of driving down the mortality rate among those crucial groups. So if we were to give schools decent notice to come back, we are driven more towards 8 March by that logic rather than coming back earlier. Believe me, we have been round and round this many times, and it is about as fast as we think we can prudently go. I think that is what the country would want; people would want schools open but they would want them open in a cautious and sensible way.

Sitting suspended.